What secrets will the diary reveal?
Background: Especially For Girls was a mail-order book club offered through the venerable Weekly Reader service and marketed to young teenagers. Women of A Certain Age will immediately recognize the cover for Ann Reit’s Dream Boy, the free bonus book that arrived with your membership.
The books are hardcover reissues of older paperback titles (the club’s Sweet Valley High reissues are the bane of the paperback completist’s existence) and focus on age-appropriate crushes and other low-stakes conflicts.
This week’s book comes to me courtesy of Karen at the school library blog Ms. Yingling Reads, who has kindly passed along a stack of Especially For Girls titles. She is to be doubly thanked for sticking a note in this one, outlining some highlights:
Early on: SNOW! It did seem to snow more before 1985!
p. 29- My father still has the soup-can pencil holder I made!
33- Bionic hand!
43- Roller disco!
56- AV Squad!
100- 1950’s dress up days!
HOW CAN THIS MISS???? IT INVOLVES A BIONIC HAND!
The Plot: 13 year old Karen Berman is preoccupied with the usual teen tribulations, including a bratty younger sister and getting up the nerve to ask her crush to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance.
Girls asking boys must be Madsion School’s easy answer to Women’s Lib. But I am already liberated. Sometimes I’m embarrassed because my liberated family does things differently from my friends’ families.
This includes a Mom who drives a VW bus with a “No Nukes” sticker on the rear bumper and a stay-at-home dad with a basement workshop where he works as an “inventor”.
Karen keeps track of her adolescent grievances in her diary, which takes the form of Memoranda to her future daughter, promising to not be totally embarrassing when she grows up.
Karen’s progress in asking her crush, Peter, to the dance is slow going, especially when she sees him hanging around with Dana, the new girl in school. Dana is a total badass:
For all I knew, maybe Dana had already asked Peter to the dance. She wasn’t the shy type. She even smoked cigarettes and called them grits to act really cool. Dana cursed a lot too, especially around teachers.
But having Hippie parents who just want to rap with ya proves to be an advantage after a rough day, as Karen learns when her mother gives Karen her own diary from the 1950s, to help bridge the generation gap.
Karen is shocked to read about her mother’s own difficulties in getting along with her younger sister as a teenager, and intrigued by references to “Mr. X” an older man that her mother had a crush on in Junior High.
The mystery deepens when Karen notices an older man taking daily walks through the neighborhood, stopping to gaze wistfully at the Bermans’ house.
One crisis after another quickly unfolds, as Karen procrastinates over asking Peter to the dance for so long that the tickets sell out, forcing her to buy from Madison Junior High’s resident scalper, Joey Dillon; then the dance is cancelled entirely when the mysterious stranger collapses in front of the school, an unwitting target in a school-wide snowball fight. Worst of all, Dana implicates Karen as the snowball-thower!
Karen, being a responsible type, is eventually able to convince the principal to reschedule the dance for a time that there will be no snow on the ground, and promises to go visit the mysterious old man, Mr. Alexandrov, in the hospital and take on some of his chores while he recovers. Which is kind of self-serving because the more Karen thinks about it the more she suspects that Mr. Alexandrov is the Mr. X her mother was in love with and she wants to get to the bottom of the mystery!
And then somehow along the way Karen invites a bunch of her classmates to a party at her house without telling her parents, which she immediately regrets:
I was supposed to be out at the dance, so they would have had to be home with Jillie and Beth anyway. Only what if they’d invited friends over or planned to have a “No Nukes” meeting here?
More complications ensue when Peter asks if he can invite Dana and the other parents get word about her bad influence:
“My mother wants to think it over. She asked me if Dana’s the girl I once pointed out to her on Main Street. ‘The kid who smokes God knows what’ is the way my mother put it. My mother’s got a memory like an elephant. Is Dana bringing her ‘grits,’ Karen?”
Luckily, Karen’s Hippie parents are very democratic in all things, so Karen able to call a family meeting and bargain her way into having the party, especially once she gets her parents going about how awesome the 1950s were in Brooklyn. Inspired by her mother’s diary entry about “the new food fad, pizza”, Karen opts for a 1950’s pizza party with an 80s twist (The twist? Styx.)
And then her parents kind of take things too far and try to make it this whole Lil Abner-themed Sadie Hawkins costume party, until Karen is like ENOUGH ABOUT THE FIFTIES ALREADY.
The actual party goes on without a hitch, and Karen even makes the mature decision to not let her friends into her father’s workshop to see the bionic hand that he’s working on for the government and Peter kisses her during a game of Post Office, so The Fifties are good for something after all. Mr. Alexandrov is discharged from the hospital and stops by to share a slice of pizza with the family, and even Dana behaves herself for the night (it turns out that she and Peter went to Dyslexia School together as children, which is why they are always hanging around together).
Finally, Karen confronts her mother with her theory that Mr. Alexandrov is the mysterious Mr. X and it is revealed that Mr. X is really… Karen’s father. Because if you don’t meet your One True Love in middle school, you’re going to die alone, a mummified corpse in a crawlspace. The end.
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